Bar News - January 19, 2007
Judicial Branch Submits ‘Improvement’ Budget
By: By Dan Wise
After several years of tight budgets and last year’s self-imposed “maintenance” budget that authorized no new programs or additional personnel, the judicial branch this year is proposing a budget that includes $8.1 million in spending for new initiatives or added staff.
The total budget request is $71.9 million in fiscal year 2008, and $74.5 million in the second year of the biennium. The current year’s budget was $65.3 million.
The new programs and spending requests arise out of a carefully planned, multi-year strategic planning effort that culminated with the convening of a Citizens Commission on the State Courts last year.
The Citizens Commission issued its report and recommendations last June. Since then, leaders of the various levels of the courts have been meeting to figure out how to implement the recommendations—in terms of daily operations or by including initiatives in the budgets they developed. In a letter to legislative leaders sent last month, Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr., said that this year’s budget is the product of “an exhaustive, comprehensive effort…to improve the way we do business.”
According to NH Supreme Court General Counsel Howard Zibel, who is the judicial branch’s liaison with the legislature, the courts’ budget—along with all other units of state government—will be the subject of legislative hearings starting in mid- to late-February. The initiatives will also be highlighted later this month when Broderick presents a six-month progress report to the Citizens Commission at 1 p.m. on Jan. 26, at the Supreme Court. (Documents for the progress report and explanatory materials on the budget are at the Court’s Web site at www.courts.state.nh.us.)
Among the elements or initiatives in the fiscal year 2008 budget:
- Add two superior court judgeships (to 24 judges), as justified by rising caseloads. This will require a statutory change.
- Employ nine case managers to serve in trial courts, providing assistance to litigants with obtaining forms and information on court procedures.
- Add 10 clerical staff positions in the family division to keep up with the increased workload associated with legislative changes, such as RSA 461-A:4, mandating Parenting Plans in divorces involving children.
- Restore 10 of 25 vacant clerical positions in the coming fiscal year, and nine more in fiscal year 2009 to reduce paperwork delays and backlogs in all courts. Also, an increase in overtime budget to address backlogs in specific areas.
- Add three regional court clerks and one regional court administrator to the Family Division as it completes its statewide expansion.
- Begin start-up funding for a system-wide Alternative Dispute Resolution office which is expected to be self-funding (through mediation fees.)
- Add compensation for chairs of Medical Screening Panels created under last year’s med-mal legislation.
- Convert five part-time judges to full-time over the biennium.
- Provide additional funding for judicial staff salaries to retain qualified personnel and reduce training costs (by reducing turnover).
- Provide extensive in-house training for information technology staff, installation of public access computer terminals at all court sites, and wiring for computer access in courtrooms.
- Increase marital master salaries to 90 percent of a full-time judge’s salary.
- Add two law clerks system-wide to assist judges (one added in each fiscal year).
- In a PowerPoint presentation posted on the Web site, the court pointed to a number of “cost drivers” that are spurring the need for additional resources for the courts, including:
New legislation: The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act and the Sexual Predators Act have added new duties and processes to the adjudicatory process. A revision in RSA 179:10 has increased by 112 percent the number of under-age alcohol offenses from 2002 to 2006.
Pro Se litigants: The number of self-represented litigants, who usually require significant assistance from court staff and whose presence prolongs court proceedings, continues to increase.
More interpreters: More money is being spent on interpreters for immigrants who do not speak English, or for those who are hearing-impaired.
Increased in-state travel: Adding multiple family division sites within counties increases the need for administrators to travel between sites.
In an upcoming issue of NH Bar News, the judicial branch’s efforts to control costs and to increase efficiencies and income will be detailed.